The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What it Means for Schools

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1 The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What it Means for Schools National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Division of Violence Prevention TM

2 What We Know about Bullying and Suicide In the past decade, headlines reporting the tragic stories of a young person s suicide death linked in some way to bullying (physical, verbal, or online) have become regrettably common. There is so much pain and suffering associated with each of these events, affecting individuals, families, communities and our society as a whole and resulting in an increasing national outcry to do something about the problem of bullying and suicide. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other violence prevention partners and researchers have invested in learning more about the relationship between these two serious public health problems with the goal of using this knowledge to save lives and prevent future bullying. As school administrators, teachers, and school staff in daily contact with young people, you are uniquely affected by these events and feel enormous pressure to help prevent them in the future. The purpose of this document is to provide concrete, action-oriented information based on the latest science to help you improve your schools understanding of and ability to prevent and respond to the problem of bullying and suiciderelated behavior. What We Know about Bullying Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Bullying can occur in-person or through technology. Bullying has serious and lasting negative effects on the mental health and overall well-being of youth involved in bullying in any way including: those who bully others, youth who are bullied, as well as those youth who both bully others and are bullied by others, sometimes referred to as bully-victims. Even youth who have observed but not participated in bullying behavior report significantly more feelings of helplessness and less sense of connectedness and support from responsible adults (parents/schools) than youth who are have not witnessed bullying behavior. Negative outcomes of bullying (for youth who bully others, youth who are bullied, and youth who both are bullied and bully others) may include: depression, anxiety, involvement in interpersonal violence or sexual violence, substance abuse, poor social functioning, and poor school performance, including lower grade point averages, standardized test scores, and poor attendance. Youth who report frequently bullying others and youth who report being frequently bullied are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior. Youth who report both bullying others and being bullied (bully-victims) have the highest risk for suiciderelated behavior of any groups that report involvement in bullying. 2 The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide

3 What We Know about Suicide Suicide-related behaviors include the following: Suicide: Death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die. Suicide attempt: A non-fatal self-directed potentially injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior. A suicide attempt may or may not result in injury. Suicidal ideation: Thinking about, considering, or planning for suicide. Suicide-related behavior is complicated and rarely the result of a single source of trauma or stress. People who engage in suicide-related behavior often experience overwhelming feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. ANY involvement with bullying behavior is one stressor which may significantly contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that raise the risk of suicide. Youth who are at increased risk for suiciderelated behavior are dealing with a complex interaction of multiple relationship (peer, family, or romantic), mental health, and school stressors. What We Know about Bullying and Suicide Together We know that bullying behavior and suicide-related behavior are closely related. This means youth who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior than youth who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior. We know enough about the relationship between bullying and suicide-related behavior to make evidence-based recommendations to improve prevention efforts. What We DON T Know about Bullying and Suicide We don t know if bullying directly causes suicide-related behavior. We know that most youth who are involved in bullying do NOT engage in suicide-related behavior. It is correct to say that involvement in bullying, along with other risk factors, increases the chance that a young person will engage in suiciderelated behaviors. What We Know and What it Means for Schools 3

4 The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide Recent attention focused on the relationship between bullying and suicide is positive and helpful because it: 1. Raises awareness about the serious harm that bullying does to all youth involved in bullying in any way. 2. Highlights the significant risk for our most vulnerable youth (e.g. youth with disabilities, youth with learning differences, LGBTQ youth). 3. Encourages conversation about the problem of bullying and suicide and promotes collaboration around prevention locally and nationally. However, framing the discussion of the issue as bullying being a single, direct cause of suicide is not helpful and is potentially harmful because it could: 1. Perpetuate the false notion that suicide is a natural response to being bullied which has the dangerous potential to normalize the response and thus create copycat behavior among youth. 2. Encourage sensationalized reporting and contradicts the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide (http://reportingonsuicide.org) potentially encouraging copycat behavior that could lead to suicide contagion. 3. Focus the response on blame and punishment which misdirects the attention from getting the needed support and treatment to those who are bullied as well as those who bully others. 4. Take attention away from other important risk factors for suicidal behavior that need to be addressed (e.g. substance abuse, mental illnesses, problems coping with disease/disability, family dysfunction, etc.) Still, a report of a young person who takes his/her own life and leaves a note pointing directly to the suffering and pain they have endured because of bullying is shocking and heartbreaking. While a young person s death by suicide is a tragedy and both bullying and suicide-related behavior are serious public health problems, our response to such situations must reflect a balanced understanding of the issues informed by the best available research. It is particularly important to understand the difference between circumstances being related to an event versus being direct causes or effects of the event. To explore this idea, let s look at a similar but much simpler example: In the case of drowning deaths among children, those who are not directly supervised by a competent adult while swimming are more likely to die by drowning than those children who are directly supervised. While the lack of adult supervision does not directly cause a child to drown, it is a critical circumstance that can affect the outcome of the situation. Just as with preventing deaths by drowning, for bullying and suicide prevention, the more we understand about the relationship between circumstances and outcomes the better decisions we can make about what actions to take to prevent bullying and suicide-related behavior. 4 The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide

5 So, if bullying doesn t directly cause suicide, what do we know about how bullying and suicide are related? Bullying and suicide-related behavior are both complex public health problems. Circumstances that can affect a person s vulnerability to either or both of these behaviors exist at a variety of levels of influence individual, family, community, and society. These include: emotional distress exposure to violence family conflict relationship problems lack of connectedness to school/sense of supportive school environment alcohol and drug use physical disabilities/learning differences lack of access to resources/support. If, however, students experience the opposite of some of the circumstances listed above (e.g. family support rather than family conflict; strong school connectedness rather than lack of connectedness), their risk for suicide-related behavior and/or bullying others even if they experience bullying behavior might be reduced. These types of circumstances/situations or behaviors are sometimes referred to as protective factors. In reality, most students have a combination of risk and protective factors for bullying behavior and suiciderelated behavior. This is one of the reasons that we emphasize that the relationship between the two behaviors and their health outcomes is not simple. The ultimate goal of our prevention efforts is to reduce risk factors and increase protective factors as much as possible. The bottom-line of the most current research findings is that being involved in bullying in any way as a person who bullies, a person who is bullied, or a person who both bullies and is bullied (bully-victim) is ONE of several important risk factors that appears to increase the risk of suicide among youth. What Can We Do with What We Know? Knowledge is really most helpful if it informs action toward a positive change in this case, prevention of bullying and suicide-related behavior. In your position spending several hours a day with youth you have the opportunity to put some of the best knowledge to work but little time to sift through reams of information. Hopefully, you will find the evidence-based suggestions in this document realistic and actionable in your specific settings. The following table highlights key research findings about the relationship between bullying and suiciderelated behavior, identifies the prevention action you can take based on this information, and suggests places to find supporting resources. What We Know and What it Means for Schools 5

6 What do we know from research? Youth who feel connected to their school are less likely to engage in suicide-related behaviors. Youth who are able to cope with problems in healthy ways and solve problems peacefully are less likely to engage in suicide and bullying related behaviors. What can school personnel do? Help your students feel connected to you and their school. For example, greet them by name every day. Ask them how they are doing, etc. Encourage their extracurricular interests and involvement. A strong sense of connectedness to caring, responsible adults at school can provide invaluable support to youth who may be struggling socially and/or emotionally. Teach youth coping/life skills. Focus on positive and empowering messages that build resilience and acceptance of differences in themselves and others. Early training (even starting in elementary school) for students to help them develop coping and problemsolving skills, build resilience, and increase their social intelligence and empathy is important to fostering positive mental health and pro-social behavior. Where can I find more information? CDC resources for fostering school connectedness: adolescenthealth/ connectedness.htm CDC s Applying Science, Advancing Practice: Preventing Suicide Through Connectedness: ViolencePrevention/pdf/ASAP_ Suicide_Issue3-a.pdf Links to evidence-based, socialemotional learning approaches: Good Behavior Game education/?type=projects&id =127 Steps to Respect: Bullying Prevention for Elementary School Youth with disabilities, learning differences, sexual/gender identity differences or cultural differences are often most vulnerable to being bullied. Provide better training for all school staff who work with youth. Teach personnel about vulnerable populations and appropriate ways to intervene in bullying situations. Understand that acknowledging risk factors is not the same as victim blaming. There are power differences involved in bullying situations. For this reason, general conflict resolution methods are not appropriate or effective. Adopt and implement effective and inclusive antibullying policies. Federal resources on responding to bullying: respond/index.html prevention/training-center/ index.html Information on anti-bullying policy: anti-bullying-and-anticyberbullying-policies 6 The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide

7 What do we know from research? Youth who report frequently bullying others are at high, long-term risk for suiciderelated behavior. Youth who report both being bullied and bullying others (sometimes referred to as bully-victims) have the highest rates of negative mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and thinking about suicide. Youth who report being frequently bullied by others are at increased risk of suiciderelated behaviors, and negative physical and mental health outcomes. What can school personnel do? Provide support and referrals for all youth involved. Include their families. Youth who act out through bullying others may be trying to fit in and/or reacting to stress, abuse, or other issues at home or school. Bullying behavior may be an important signal that they need mental health services and additional support. While punishment and appropriate consequences are often a necessary part of a school s response, we must move beyond punishment and blame to set the tone for lasting prevention. The focus on blame, shame, and criminalization is divisive and can be a roadblock to getting youth and families the professional support that is needed to make a positive change and prevent future suffering. Where can I find more information? Federal resources on supporting youth involved in bullying: index.html respond/support-kidsinvolved/index.html#address Involvement in bullying in any way even as a witness has serious and long-lasting negative consequences for youth. Youth who reported witnessing bullying had greater feelings of helplessness and less sense of connectedness to school than youth who did not report witnessing bullying. Empower youth by providing concrete, positive, and proactive ways they can influence the social norms of their peer group so that bullying is seen as an uncool behavior. Encourage more work on bystander approaches to violence prevention in general. Federal resources for empowering bystanders: index.html respond/be-more-than-abystander/index.html CDC s Applying Science, Advancing Practice: The Bully- Sexual Violence Pathway in Early Adolescence violenceprevention/pdf/ asap_bullyingsv-a.pdf What We Know and What it Means for Schools 7

8 Looking Ahead There is a lot of concern, even panic, about the ongoing problem of bullying and suicide-related behavior among school-age youth. Much of the media coverage is focused on blame and criminal justice intervention rather than evidence-based, action-oriented prevention. Public health researchers are continually seeking a better understanding of the relationship between bullying and suicide-related behavior as well as the related risk and protective factors that affect young people. Increased awareness about what we do know, what we don t know, and what information is most helpful and applicable to prevention is crucial to your schools efforts to protect students from harm. The good news is that we do have evidence-based, actionable information to help prevent bullying and suicide. As teachers, administrators, and school staff you have a vital and rewarding role to play by getting the word out and encouraging colleagues and communities to take action. Additional Reading Borowsky IW, Taliaferro LA, McMorris BJ. Suicidal thinking and behavior among youth involved in verbal and social bullying: Risk and protective factors. Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 53:S4-S12. Copeland WE, Wolke D, Angold A, Costello EJ. Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry 2013; 70(4): Cadarerelli, N. Bullying and Suicide: Unraveling the Link. A Presentation by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Retrieved October 21, 2012 from education.state.nm.us. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Connectedness as a strategic direction for the prevention of suicidal behavior. Retrieved April 29, 2013 from strategic_direction-one-pager-a.pdf. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth risk behavior surveillance United States, MMWR Surveillance Summaries 2012; 61(no. SS-4). Available from Eisenberg ME, Neurnark-Sztainer D, Perry CL. Peer harassment, school connectedness, and academic achievement. Journal of School Health 2003; 73(8): Espelage DL, Holt MK. Suicidal ideation and school bullying experiences after controlling for depression and delinquency. Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 53:S27-S31. Farrington DP, Ttofi MM. Bullying as a predictor of offending, violence and later life outcomes. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 2011; 21: Fekkes M, Pijpers F, Fredriks AM, Vogels T, Verloove-Vanhorick SP. Do bullied children get ill, or do ill children get bullied? A prospective cohort study on the relationship between bullying and health-related symptoms. Pediatrics 2006; 117: Glew GM, Fan M, Katon W, Rivara FP, Kernic MA. Bullying, psychosocial adjustment, and academic performance in elementary school. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 2005; 159: Hatzenbuehler ML, Keyes KM. Inclusive anti-bullying policies and reduced risk of suicide attempts in lesbian and gay youth. Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 53:S21-S26. 8 The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide

9 Juvonen, J. Nishina, A. and Graham, S. Peer harassment, psychological adjustment, and school functioning in early adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology 2000; 92(2): Karch DL, Logan J, McDaniel DD, Floyd CF, Vagi KJ. Precipitating circumstances of suicide among youth aged years by sex: Data from the National Violent Death Reporting System, 16 States, Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 53:S51-S53. Kim YS, Leventhal B. Suicide and bullying. A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health 2008; 20: King CA, Horwitz A, Berona J, Jiang Q. Acutely suicidal adolescents who engage in bullying behavior: One-year trajectories. Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 53:S43-S50. Klomek AB, Kleinman M, Altschuler E, Marrocco F, Amakawa L, Gould MS. Suicidal adolescents experiences with bullying perpetration and victimization during high school as risk factors for later depression and suicidality. Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 53:S37-S42. Klomek AB, Sourander A, Gould A. The association of suicide and bullying in childhood to young adulthood: A review of cross-sectional and longitudinal research findings. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 2010; 55: Klomek AB, Sourander A, Niemela S, Kumpulainen K, Piha J, Tamminen T, Almqvist F, Gould MS. Childhood bullying behaviors as a risk for suicide attempts and completed suicides: A population-based birth cohort study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2009; 48: Kowalski RM, Limber SP. Psychological, physical, and academic correlates of cyberbullying and traditional bullying. Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 53:S Lubell KM, Vetter JB. Suicide and youth violence prevention: The promise of an integrated approach. Aggression and Violent Behavior 2006; 11: McKenna M, Hawk E, Mullen J, Hertz M. The association between bullying behavior and health risks among middle school and high school students in Massachusetts, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2011; 60: Nansel TR, Overpeck M, Pilla M, et al. Bullying behavior among US youth: prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association 2001; 285: Rivers I, Noret N. Potential suicide ideation and its association with observing bullying at school. Journal of Adolescent Health 2013; 53:S32-S36. Vreeman RC, Carroll AE. A systematic review of school-based interventions to prevent bullying. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 2007; 161: Waasdorp TE, Bradshaw CP, Leaf PJ. The impact of school wide positive behavioral interventions and supports on bullying and peer rejection: A randomized controlled effectiveness trial. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 2012; 166: Williams KR, Guerra NG. Prevalence and predictors of internet bullying. Journal of Adolescent Health 2007; 41:S What We Know and What it Means for Schools 9

10 For more information please contact: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Division of Violence Prevention 4770 Buford Hwy NE, MS F-64 Chamblee, GA CDC-INFO 04/2014

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